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Posco CEO apologizes for accidents at steel mills

Steelmaker chief faces criticism after earlier attempt to shun hearing

Posco Chief Executive Officer Choi Jung-woo speaks during a parliamentary committee hearing on Monday. (Yonhap)
Posco Chief Executive Officer Choi Jung-woo speaks during a parliamentary committee hearing on Monday. (Yonhap)

Posco Chairman Choi Jung-woo apologized for not being able to put a stop to accidents at the company’s steel mills and reiterated his vow of making them “zero hazard” plants during a parliamentary committee hearing on Monday.

“I am deeply sorry for having caused worries to people and the bereaved families. We have put safety as the utmost priority and made various efforts under such context but fell under expectations,” Choi said during the hearing.

The parliamentary committee hearing conducted by the Environment and Labor Committee was the very first one centered on industrial accidents. The parliamentary committee called in representatives of nine companies in construction, logistics and manufacturing industries that recorded a multitude of industrial accidents in the past two years.

In the hearing, Choi also apologized for his earlier attempt to excuse himself from the hearing, citing chronic back disease.

Choi had submitted a non-attendance statement, but made an eleventh-hour decision to come to the hearing after facing mounting criticism over evasion of responsibility.

According to the steelmaker’s labor union, a total of 14 deaths have been observed since Choi was appointed in July 2018. Of them, eight have been confirmed as industrial accidents by the Labor Ministry.

A most recent case took place on Feb. 8, when a subcontractor employee died while replacing a conveyor roller at Pohang steel mill. The Posco chief visited the plant on Feb. 17 and issued a public apology.

During the parliamentary hearing, Choi said aging facilities and equipment at the steel plants were a contributing factor, and vowed to bring more changes to prevent accidents.

“There are many facilities that are more than 50 years old at Posco’s steel mills. I believe the aged facilities and lack of monitoring efforts have led to the accidents,” he said.

When lawmakers pointed to the high proportion of contract workers among the death toll, Choi admitted the company may have lacked systemized safety monitoring and vowed to take more care to improve the work environment for all employees. But Choi denied allegations that the work environment is more hazardous for subcontractors.

“Duties that involve greater danger factors such as molten metal and gas are done by workers directly employed by Posco, and we do not assign tasks based on the level of danger,” Choi explained.

According to Choi, about 16,000 subcontract employees work at Posco’s steel plants.

Rep. Noh Woong-rae of the Democratic Party of Korea claimed that Posco made modifications to hazard and operability reports in 2018 and 2019 to hide their faults.

Rep. Noh revealed exchanges from several internal emails, in which an unidentified official requested to make changes to the past assessment reports. The reports were to be reported and explained by Choi in Monday’s parliamentary hearing.

In response to the allegations, Choi said he was not aware that such orders have been made by anyone at the company, but promised to take appropriate measures if they were true.

Following a series of accidents, Posco announced in December they would spend 1 trillion won ($902 million) in the next three years on safety measures and reinforcing facilities. Posco has already spent about 1.3 trillion won on safety precautions in the last three years.

In the parliamentary hearing committee, eight representatives of other companies also attended, including Hyundai Heavy Industries Han Young-seuk, Coupang Fulfillment Services CEO Joe Nortman and GS Engineering and Construction CEO Woo Moo-hyun.

By Jo He-rim (